It just so happened that Jake Leschyshyn had set his sights on the Red Deer Rebels prior to Thursday’s Western Hockey League bantam draft.
“Before the draft my dad and I both talked to Red Deer a bit. My dad said it’s a great organization and his first choice was Red Deer. It worked out well,” said the Saskatoon native, who was selected by the Rebels sixth overall in the draft conducted in Calgary.
“It feels like Christmas.”
Rebels assistant GM/director of player personnel Shaun Sutter couldn’t pass on the talented five-foot-eight forward — the son of former NHL defenceman Curtis Leschyshyn — when he was available at No. 6. His overall package was simply too attractive.
“Jake is a complete player, a player who can contribute in all three zones and a guy whom coaches can rely on in every situation, whether it’s taking a faceoff or shutting down an opponent’s top player or making plays to score a big goal,” said Sutter.
“He’s a guy who shows up in the big games and a guy who can potentially be the captain of our team down the road. He’s a guy you win with. He’ll go through the wall for you.”
The Rebels dealt their own second-round pick, 31st overall, to the Victoria Royals in return for 20-year-old defenceman Brett Cote, then used the second-round selection formerly belonging to Everett to nab Red Deer product Dawson Weatherill, a six-foot-four goaltender who put up impressive numbers with the major bantam Rebels White this past season.
“He’s a kid who’s uber-athletic a kid who has great size and should be in a great place for development playing midget AAA in Red Deer next season,” said Sutter. “When you have that size and that athleticism, it’s something to build on, and now being that you can’t draft European goaltenders any more, the goaltending situation is more important that ever.
“We feel he was one of the best goalies in the draft.”
Weatherill, who posted a 12-5-1 record with the Rebels White with one shutout, a 2.52 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, was following the bantam draft while at school Thursday morning.
“I was looking it up on my phone, my name came up and I was just beside myself,” said Weatherill. “It’s been a really exciting day.”
The rangy netminder filled out a questionnaire for the Rebels and his father talked to Shaun Sutter during the season. The discussions came to fruition Thursday.
Weatherill, who should find a spot with the midget AAA Red Deer Chiefs next fall, enjoyed a fine 2013-14 season and then posted a 2-1-0 record with a 3.34 GAA and .900 save percentage for the Central team at the recent Alberta Cup.
“I feel I had a great season, that I came a long way from the end of the previous year due to all my training,” he said.
Both Weatherill and Leschyshyn will attend the Rebels spring prospects camp June 6-8 at Penhold. The team’s first-round pick will display his ‘all-around’ skills to the Rebels coaching staff.
“Overall, I’d say I’m just a hard-working player who has a pretty well-rounded skill set. Hard work is thing that sets me apart,” said Leschyshyn, who weighs in at 150 pounds but plays much larger.
Leschyshyn scored 31 goals and collected 59 points in 31 games with the bantam AA (the equivalent of major bantam in Alberta) Saskatoon Stallions during the 2013-14 season, and also racked up 69 minutes in penalties. He added 10 points (6-4) in eight playoff games.
He also played nine games with the midget AAA Saskatoon Blazers, scoring twice and adding four assists.
“I really enjoyed playing up with the Blazers,” said Leschyshyn. “I was going against better players than I was used to and the speed of play was much quicker, which I really enjoyed.”
Red Deer, using Kamloops’ scheduled third-round pick — acquired in return for defenceman Brady Gaudet — took defenceman Ethan Sakowich of Athabasca 46th overall, and then drafted Carson Sass of Melville, Sask., one pick later. The Rebels grabbed another blueliner, Benjamin ‘Boo” Grist of Victoria, in the sixth round, 119th overall.
“They’re all puck-moving guys who are good, all-around players,” said Sutter. “They compete and they’re good defensively. They’re five-11 guys with good frames and upside to grow.”
Sakowich had 18 points (6-12) and 42 penalty minutes in 30 games with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers, while Sass — taken with the pick Red Deer acquired from Saskatoon in return for Cory Millette — scored nine goals and added 12 assists in 30 games with his hometown Millionaires. Grist garnered 22 points (7-15) in 43 games with the Victoria Racquet Club Kings.
“These are three players who can contribute in all areas,” added Sutter. “They’re not stay-at-home, defensive guys who make that first pass. They are those all-situation defencemen we were looking for that maybe we didn’t have on our team this year.”
In the fourth and fifth rounds, the Rebels looked south of the border and snared Shattuck St. Mary’s centres Austin Pratt of Lakeville, Minn., 75th overall and Grant Mismash of Edina, Minn., with the 97 overall pick. Both are highly-regarded prospects.
“We feel that if they were Canadian kids they would have both been selected in the high end of the draft,” said Sutter. “They are elite players. They’re going to be pros.”
The risk with American players is that they often lean towards committing to U.S. colleges.
However . . .
“Pratt is a guy who has a lot of interest in major junior hockey. His dad is originally from Ontario,” said Sutter. “Coincidentally, Mismash is best friends with Austin. These kids are going to be guys we see on TV one day, so they were guys worth taking a chance on in the fourth and fifth rounds.
“We’ll try and recruit them and one day they might be wearing Red Deer Rebels jerseys. If they play with us it will be like having three first-round picks.”
Pratt, who checks in at an impressive six-foot-two and 205 pounds, put up 73 points (30-43) and 60 penalty minutes in 65 games with Shattuck, while the six-foot, 175-pound Mismash had 48 goals and 96 points in 65 games and also recorded 132 penalty minutes.
Red Deer took winger Chance Adrian of Dalmeny, Sask., in the seventh round, 142nd overall, and centre Brayden Labant of St. Paul in the eighth round, 163rd overall. The Rebels then selected forward Akash Bains of Delta, B.C., with their ninth-round pick, 185th overall.
“All three are similar in terms of being guys who can make a play, have some skill and get around the ice,” said Sutter.
The six-foot, 170-pound Adrian had 41 points, including 18 goals, in 31 games with the Valley Vipers, while the five-foot-11, 178-pound Labant had numbers of 15-14-29 in 32 games with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers and Bains, who checks in at five-11, 180 pounds, had 57 points (31-26) in 59 games with the Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA).
“Of the three, Adrian is the guy who probably has to work on his skating, but they are all guys who play a strong, heavy game,” said Sutter. “All three are big-bodied kids. We want to play an attacking style of game and we want our wingers to be strong along the wall. They all fit into that category.”
Forward Chase Stevenson of West Kelowna, who is small in stature at five-foot-seven and 150 pounds, but big in potential, was Red Deer’s final selection, taken in the 10th round at 207th overall. He had 34 goals and 68 points in 50 games with OHA.
“He’s a bit of a sleeper. He played on a line with Michael Rasmussen, who was the seventh overall pick by Tri-City, and fed him the puck all season,” said Sutter. “We saw him do it all winter, no matter the situation he was productive. He can make plays, he’s very competitive and his skating has improved.”
Overall, Sutter is confident the Rebels garnered a nice mix of promising prospects at the draft table.
“We want to be a team that’s tough to play against, but you can’t have a whole bunch of players the same,” he said. “You need players who can complement each other.
“They are all moving into good programs next year and in terms of development that’s something we put a lot of weight in. I think every team today feels like they probably had the best draft and picked the best players, but we had a strategy coming in and I feel we really accomplished what we were trying to do. We’re pretty happy and we feel we have picked a good group of players with good character, which is important.”